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Soviet Modernism’s Enduring Baltic Legacy

Three decades since the USSR collapsed, the small Baltic states still have many visual reminders of a half century of Soviet rule. Today, the husks of grand modernist buildings look like monuments to the state’s vanity — but their legacy also reflects the efforts of local architects who resisted stylistic conformism.

Linnahall, constructed for the 1980 Summer Olympics, is in negotiations to be restored and repurposed. (Courtesy of the author)

In the twilight years of the USSR, artists, party functionaries, and even criminal figures congregated at the coastal resort city of Jurmala, twenty-five miles from the capital of the Latvian Soviet Republic, Riga. The major draw was a restaurant-club, Jūras Pērle, or “Pearl of the Sea” — a decadent, glitzy retreat with the best bartenders, variety dancers, and entertainers the perfunctory Soviet nation had to offer, including singer Laima Vaikule.

Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev’s daughter and East Germany’s Erich Honecker were both known to have visited the venue, which had a strict dress code; men without a tie were not allowed in, even with a booking. Queues for the nightclub were rumored to start at 6 AM and the lights under the glass floor flashed in time with the music as scantily clad dancers entertained the clientele.

Activities inside the building gave it a certain notoriety, but the building itself was an oddity. The modernist structure was designed and built by local architect Josifs Goldenbergs in 1964–65 and opened to the public in 1969, a massive glass-windowed concrete structure jutting ambitiously out over the beach. Goldenbergs was a pioneer of modernism in the region, having also designed the department store Bērnu Pasaule (Children’s World) in the center of Riga, incorporating elements of the International Style into his work. After the USSR collapsed in 1991 — and following two mysterious fires — the Jūras Pērle club was demolished in 2001.

The Baltic states are home to several such “pearls” of Soviet-era modernism, but there has long been a widespread reluctance to preserve them — in part on account of the period they symbolize, and in part the likely expense involved. The Baltic states were occupied by the USSR first in 1940–1941 in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s carve up of northern and eastern Europe, and then again from the end of the war. They regained their independence only in 1991 after a series of difficult, sometimes fatal, struggles.

The unique Soviet modernist buildings in each country are a testament to both the subversive stylings of local architects during the occupation and the collectivist ideals underpinning the structures. Many are the only remaining examples of their kind, but the associated pain of the Soviet era, costs, and various private contractual issues undoubtedly contribute toward their neglect.

Linnahall (originally the V. I. Lenin Palace of Culture and Sport) in Tallinn, Estonia, was constructed for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow by the Estonian architect Raine Karp (along with Riina Altmäe). During the Games, Estonia was home to the sailing and yachting program on account of Moscow’s distance from the sea.

The crumbling, graffiti-covered coastal structure has fallen into disuse over the past decade, but in the past year or so has been at the center of new negotiations to repurpose it. Most recently, it served as a key filming location for the Christopher Nolan thriller Tenet.

Repurposed

Last February, Baltic Sea cruise company Tallink announced that plans were underway to repurpose Linnahall into a multipurpose conference and concert venue and ferry terminal. COVID-19 has since hindered the company’s plans. “It really depends on how the pandemic situation develops. Our priority right now is maintaining and restoring our core business,” said Katri Link, communications director at Tallink & Silja Line. Progress on the project remains slow, but plans have not necessarily changed. The building is at the very least under heritage protection, according to Tallinn’s Urban Planning Department. “Before the crisis, Tallinn city government and ferry company Tallink agreed about renovating the building,” said Margit Lokk, a coordinator with the department. “At the moment, we can’t say when it’ll take place.”

But conservative forces in the recent government took a scathing approach to its ongoing presence. “Linnahall, among other objects, is a symbol of this type of ugly Soviet-era modernism,” Estonia’s former interior minister Mart Helme, from the far-right EKRE party, said last August. He also criticized the Maarjamäe World War II memorial in Pirita, a northeastern district of Tallinn. The complex, constructed in the 1960s, commemorates both the soldiers who died fighting the Nazis and the Bolsheviks who died fighting against the newly independent Estonia in 1918.

During the post–World War II occupation, several other monuments were erected honoring the Soviet fight against the Nazis, as well as Lenin, Stalin, and socialist-realist sculptures, which have since been relocated to the city’s periphery. This legacy is still a cultural battleground. Despite the time elapsed since the USSR’s collapse, there remains a certain distance between the native populations and local Russian communities, which today make up less than 30 percent of the population in each Baltic nation.

There are significant legal issues surrounding Soviet-era buildings across all three Baltic nations. In 1992, Latvia’s Law on the Protection of Cultural Monuments prohibited the listing of buildings less than fifty years old and, in the 1990s, many were abandoned or demolished regardless of their architectural quality. Those that remain are often crumbling, dilapidated, even hazardous — some are past the point of restoration. The only one that gained cultural monument status in the country was Modris Gelzis’s 1959 summer cottage in Pabaži, forty miles northeast of Riga.

Similar issues persist region wide. The blocky 1976 “Banga” café in the Lithuanian coastal resort of Palanga is “hardly recognizable” and “adorned with advertisements,” according to Vaidas Petrulis, a senior research fellow at Kaunas University of Technology. The abandoned Hotel Britanika, which opened in 1986 in Lithuania’s second city, Kaunas, is set for demolition, too, and will be replaced by a new hotel. Another Kaunas “concrete monster,” Hotel Respublika, began construction in 1988. It stood unfinished for several years before its massive brutalist carcass was demolished.

And back in Riga, in the eastern neighborhood of Mežciems, a decaying cylindrical white behemoth — once intended as a maternity hospital in the 1980s — now attracts teenage urban explorers and the homeless alike. In the early 1970s, the city government decided to develop a new high-rise residential area amid the nearby forests that later became a notorious Soviet black market. The Riga City Construction Board currently has “no information about company plans to restore or demolish this building,” according to Edgars Butāns from the board, who notes that there were further talks in 2018 about the possibility of building a medical center on the premises.

Rapla is a small town of around five thousand inhabitants in northwestern Estonia. Despite its small population, it is home to a major attraction — Toomas Rein’s octagonal white administrative building, the Rapla Kolkhoz Construction Office. The broad and beautiful structure symbolizes the forcibly imposed agricultural collectivization polices that were implemented across the newly Soviet-dominated Baltics from the late 1940s onward.

Such buildings were often designed by young and talented local architects, and, in Estonia especially, there was a degree of freedom, as the State Construction Committee of Soviet Estonia stipulated that office buildings of collective farms could be “exceptionally built according to single designs to comply with their multi-functionality and to emphasize the regional peculiarities,” writes Laura Ingerpuu. Though they tend to be in obscure rural areas, they still remain a draw for architectural enthusiasts. Rein’s Rapla building first opened in 1977 — and remains at risk today even though it was placed under heritage protection in 2015. “If nothing is done in the near future, then there will of course be nothing to save or preserve anymore,” said the Estonian Academy of Arts’ Mait Väljas.

The situation in the capital cities is a little different, with some postwar Soviet structures finally being repurposed and the significance of their cultural heritage addressed — as is the case with Linnahall.

Desecration

Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports is also one of the last remaining athletic centers in the Soviet modernist style. Built in 1971 by Kaunas architect Eduardas Chlomauskas, it can hold more than four thousand people in its ship-like body, yet has been termed derelict for several years. It has been at the center of disputes ever since its construction, as the Soviets originally built it on the site of a Jewish cemetery, leaving the graves intact but removing the stones.

Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports. (Courtesy of the author)

However, a recent project managed by the local company Architektai Sigito Kuncevičiaus projektavimo firma intends to turn it into an international congress center, expected to be finally opened in 2023. “At the moment [it] is [at] project stage. The project task is to reconstruct the existing Vilnius palace of concerts and sports building,” the company said in a statement. Lithuania’s Ministry of Finance has not allocated the required funds for the project this year, apparently impeding the project’s progress.

While the company maintains that it wishes to “memorialize the surrounding territory that was the old Jewish cemetery” and to keep the “brutalist architecture character,” members of the Jewish community still object to the current trajectory of the project. It’s “an utter Soviet monstrosity in the worst traditions of barbarism,” said Dovid Katz, editor of Defending History, and former professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University. He added that the site should be re-established as the old Jewish cemetery rather than merely memorialized — which would still allow a convention center in the middle of a sacred site — meaning cheering, singing, drinking, and bathrooms in a space that should have a degree of solemnity.

“Vilnius needs a beautiful new state-of-the-art congress center,” he added, but “one that symbolizes the harmony of all the great cultures that made Vilnius Vilnius. Not a recycling of a Soviet building in the middle of a cemetery where people of conscience from all parts of the planet would refuse to set foot inside.” More than 90 percent of the Jewish population was exterminated in Lithuania during the Holocaust, and as such, there are few descendants able to fight for the burial ground. “It is, in short, looted property that needs to be returned,” said Katz.

Nordic Influence

These later Soviet structures, like the Palace of Concerts and Sports, or Rapla Kolkhoz Construction Office, or even Linnahall, are not so obviously ideological as their predecessors; neither are Red Army memorials nor actual Stalinist architecture. The later utilization of local architects by the Soviet regime from the 1960s onward saw the introduction of stylistic influences from elsewhere. Goldenbergs studied in Paris, training at various European design workshops in the 1930s. Lithuania was also home to the architect Vytautas Čekanauskas. A local who was awarded the Lenin Prize, he had still consciously managed to incorporate Finnish elements into his designs. He is responsible for some of the most notable buildings in Vilnius, such as Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras, which today is preserved as the Contemporary Art Center. Latvia’s Modris Gelzis, who designed the aforementioned summer cottage, was heavily inspired by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.

This Nordic influence meant that the Baltics were “not following but setting the new standards and changing ideals of Soviet architecture,” writes Marija Drėmaitė, a history professor at Vilnius University. “In the Nordic regional modernism, Baltic architects saw the features they were aspiring to — an acceptable combination of the international modernism and regional identity.” The Baltics had a history of being quietly subversive in their visual projects, with a tale of “silent resistance” persisting in the region. The infamous Bronze Soldier of Tallinn (built in the Stalinist era) was moved from the Estonian capital’s center to the outskirts of the city in 2007, causing mass unrest among local ethnic Russians.

While the sculpture depicts an unknown soldier in Red Army uniform, and one can see a hammer-and-sickle plaque placed on the wall behind the actual statue, people often speculate that Estonian sculptor Enn Roos modelled the statue’s face on Estonian Olympic wrestler and Red Army defector Kristian Palusalu. This was evident in film, too. When I met Latvian filmmaker Kristīne Briede in 2017 to discuss her project Bridges of Time, she told me that birds were often used as motifs to symbolize Baltic freedom in poetic documentaries. “They did not want to lie, and they could not tell the truth, but they wanted to make films, so they created films that were built on symbols, metaphors and images,” she said in a later interview. Art and design were often a form of this widespread silent resistance.

However, this utilization of local architects is problematic, too. Nowadays, Russian president Vladimir Putin and his supporters (falsely) like to argue that the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic states “was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities,” and that local cultures were preserved and local populations accepted the regime. These locals, in a sense, cooperated with the occupying power, even as they may have attempted to undermine it by channeling a more European or Scandinavian functionalist aesthetic.

There are practical problems with their preservation, too. The impact of the post-Soviet market economy and initial quality of construction need to be taken into account, and a major factor is simply whether funding their restoration is worth the costs — especially in a socioeconomic climate that has seen large swathes of the local population depart for other European Union countries since the Baltic states joined the bloc in 2004. While the designs for the initial buildings were detailed, their sometimes unsatisfactory execution meant buildings could lack stability. Tallinn’s Linnahall poses “intriguing questions regarding its structural integrity,” according to Estonian tourist literature. Meanwhile, the USSR tasked the construction of the nearby Viru Hotel to a Finnish construction company, Repo Oy, for its comparative competence in the face of other Soviet options.

There may be little sense in preserving these postwar structures. To pour money into reconstructing or restoring a Soviet monument that will only serve to remind the populace of a former occupying force or the destruction of a Jewish cemetery is clearly offensive given the violence they symbolize to local populations. Yet the aesthetics of the architecture, created while Baltic designers in the post-Stalin era experimented by combining outside influences and Soviet demands, does deserve acknowledgement for its unique status. For now, they continue to decay along city coastlines, little-used roads, and in minor villages, waiting for either further development or total destruction — perhaps as they should, as the painful debates surrounding them continue to unfold.